It is difficult for people not familiar with Kerry Collins' story to realise just how low his stock had sunk two years ago. The nadir came shortly after the conclusion of a dreadful 1998 season. He may have been a New Orleans Saint on paper, but his performances on and off the field suggested there were more diabolical forces at work.
Arrested for drunk-driving, shunned by two teams in a year, and lumbered with a reputation as a bad egg, Collins could only contemplate a future in rehab and wonder where his once bright career had gone. As he told journalists at the time: "I've been called a quitter, a racist, and a drunk. Other than that, I'm doing okay." In this season's NFC Championship game, however, a sober Collins led the New York Giants to a 41-0 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings and a berth in Super Bowl XXXV. His stats for the day tell their own story: 28 completions from 39 passes attempted, 381 passing yards and a record-equalling five touchdowns. Quite a turnaround for a man that New Orleans retrieved from the NFL's bargain bucket in 1998, for an embarrassing $100.
Collins' tale starts brightly enough. His high school ability was readily converted into college success at Penn State, where he posted the fifth best season in NCAA history in 1994, and a glittering future in pro football beckoned.
The expansion-team Carolina Panthers clearly agreed, and used their first ever draft pick - number five overall in 1995 - to bring him on board. A solid first season was followed by a superb second, ended only by defeat in the NFC championship game - and suddenly the Panthers looked as though they had the next Dan Marino on their books. But from this position of promise, it all started to go horribly wrong. The first indication of Collins' problems appeared in a fly-on-the-wall account of the 1996 season, 'The Year of the Cat'.
The book contained anonymous complaints from some of Collins' team-mates about what England manager Graham Taylor once memorably described as "refuelling habits". The connection between booze and sport is well-known - particularly in this country - but this was the first time anyone had suggested Collins had a problem.
Hurt by what he considered a breach of trust, Collins went into decline - one accelerated when a cheap shot from Denver's Bill Romanowski broke his jaw in pre-season. And his attempts to regain the respect of his team-mates backfired when an ill-considered racist joke went down like the proverbial lead balloon. The 1998 season was even worse, and when Collins told his head coach it was perhaps time to try somebody else the former future of the franchise was branded a quitter.
The Panthers moved quickly to rid themselves of their one-time leading asset, and only New Orleans showed any interest. Collins' stint in Louisiana was memorable only for the kind of performances that his only justifiable excuse could be that he was drunk. His arrest for drunk-driving came as a relief for all concerned, as it finally presented Collins with a point of no return.
But it still needed somebody to give Collins one last chance. Step forward New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi and head coach Jim Fassel. Whether they were impressed by Collins' new attitude, or just convinced his undeniable talent was worth another throw of the dice, the Giants offered Collins a four-year contract worth $17m.
And he has not let them down. Having made the starting quarterback position his own towards the end of the 1999 season, Collins was instrumental in helping the Giants post a 12-4 regular season record. Now he stands on the verge of Super Bowl glory. During pre-season training last summer, Collins told journalists: "I think there is a certain amount of respect that I have to get back. "Not only for myself, but with the rest of the NFL." A dominant performance on Sunday will be another huge step towards that goal.